The Kurds, both in Iraq and Syria, have put their lives on the line to fight the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Whatever any American politician, diplomat, or analyst thinks of Kurdish nationalism or any particular Kurdish political party, there is unanimity in the desire that the Kurds defeat the Islamic State.
While the Syrian Kurds (YPG) have, with very few resources, largely succeeded against the Islamic State, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have struggled. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga loyal to Masoud Barzani and commanded by his sons refused to send reinforcements to Mount Sinjar ahead of the Islamic State assault, refused to send supplies, and then largely abandoned the Yezidis to the Islamic State. Many Barzani family members fled Erbil a year ago as it looked the Islamic state might break through the lines; to this day, the Kurdish government refuses to release the flight manifests from those commercial planes and private jets that departed Erbil’s International Airport at the moment of crisis.
U.S. air power helped the Kurds avert disaster, and the Peshmerga have fought to a standstill since. They may not have scored the gains of the Iraqi Army at Tikrit and Beiji, but neither have they suffered the losses, such as at Fallujah. In short, the Kurds have fought to a standstill.
Ever since, Kurdish leaders have argued that if only the United States would supply weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and bypass the government in Baghdad, the Kurds could roll back the Islamic State further. Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG representative in Washington, DC, has talked a good game and swayed many senators, most notably Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) who had sponsored an ultimately unsuccessful bill calling for the United States to ship weaponry directly to Erbil. Alas, Abdul Rahman played Boxer and Ernst: According to some Congressional aides who attended private meetings and/or public events, she falsely claimed to U.S. officials that Baghdad had blocked weapons shipments. There was certainly tension between former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Barzani, but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has neither delayed nor hampered weapons shipments. Here, for example, is a list of recent deliveries of military equipment to the Kurdish Regional Government from international donors via Baghdad. This list, of course, does not include the military equipment delivered directly to the Kurds by Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, or Iran.
One of the chief arguments against the direct provision of weaponry to the KRG is that the weaponry doesn’t get to where it’s needed. Take Kirkuk, for example, labeled the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan” by a succession of Kurdish leaders. It has been in the Islamic State’s crosshairs, and yet Barzani has not released donated weaponry to it because its Kurdish population regularly favors rival Kurdish parties.
Barzani had led Iraqi Kurdistan since he returned to the region against the backdrop of the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, the KRG parliament established the Kurdistan Regional Presidency, allowing the president to serve two consecutive four-year terms. Barzani is now in the tenth year of his constitutional eight-year mandate.
Because a new Kurdish constitution allowing him continuing leadership has yet to be ratified and Barzani’s extra-constitutional extension expires on August 19, in theory, Kurdistan could soon have a new president the next day, as Parliamentary Speaker Yousif Mohammed from the Gorran Movement would become temporary president until parliament could elect a new president. As usual, the Kurdistan Tribune has the best overview and explanation of the current predicament.
Barzani has responded to this possibility first with a long and rambling statement, demanding snap elections for the presidency, regardless of the constitution. Then, yesterday, he took a page from Arab autocrats and staged a display of force in downtown Erbil (the Facebook page is from a news agency run by Barzani’s nephew, the current prime minister). This does not surprise. Barzani has no intention to step down: He seeks to rule for life and then allow his son Masrour to succeed him. His partisans claim him to be indispensable while others argue that transition would be unwise against the backdrop of the Islamic State threat. This is disingenuous, because with this display of power in central Erbil, Barzani is reinforcing the fact that he treats the military as a personal militia, and that he would sooner turn it on his political rivals or Kurdish civilians than dispatch it to the front lines where it is needed. Like Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Qaddafi, Barzani has exposed himself less as a nationalist than simply an egoist. That’s ultimately a problem for the Kurds to resolve, but Boxer, Ernst, their Senate colleagues should think long and hard about how and why Kurdish representatives and lobbyists played them.
As for the defeat of the Islamic State, here’s a modest proposal: Whether equipment and aid is being sent to Turkey, the YPG, the Iraqi Army, or the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, there should be far more verification as to its end use. U.S. advisors should be embedded in the war rooms and logistical centers of each group receiving American assistance to make sure it is not only delivered to the government or entity in question, but then actually gets to where it is needed. It should not be the job of U.S. taxpayers to subsidize Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s murder of Turkish or Syrian Kurds, as he lets the Islamic State go largely freely, nor should Baghdad be trusted blindly given the political turmoil in Iraq. Critics accuse the YPG of ethnic cleansing, although there’s not much evidence to support such claims beyond the fog of war. Still, the YPG would certainly accept advisors and monitors if that were a condition of substantive aid. As for Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani’s latest antics suggest a major reassessment is in order. The Kurds deserve U.S. support, but making sure cargo planes take off from Baghdad and land in Erbil is not enough. It’s long past time that the international community make aid to the Kurdistan Regional Government conditional on donor nation presence in war rooms and logistical centers to ensure that Barzani does not misappropriate the equipment to pursue political rather than military ends.